Three-List Preview: Virginia Football Takes On Big 10 Program Illinois

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The Virginia football defense, led by Noah Taylor (left) and Nick Jackson, figures to get a much tougher test this week. How will they respond? ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

The University of Virginia football program dispatched in-state FCS foe William & Mary to open the 2021 season. Now the Hoos turn their attention their first FBS opponent, the University of Illinois. UVA is looking to start the season 2-0, while the Fighting Illini (1-1) are looking to rebound from a tough home loss to Texas-San Antonio.

Illinois won only two of eight games in 2021, leading to the dismissal of Lovie Smith, who served five years as head coach. Former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema now leads the Fighting Illini. Illinois began Bielema’s tenure with a 30-22 victory over Nebraska before falling to UTSA last Saturday.

This Saturday’s matchup is the first road game of the season for Illinois, which has had some success away from Champagne the previous two years. In 2019 and 2020 the Fighting Illini compiled a 6-6 record on the road, defeating Rutgers and Nebraska in 2020 and U-Conn, Purdue and Michigan State in 2019.

Meanwhile, Scott Stadium has become a significant home field advantage for Virginia under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Including last Saturday’s victory over William & Mary, the Hoos are 18-2 at home since 2018. Brennan Armstrong began his second season as Virginia’s starting quarterback with 339 yards passing and four touchdowns as UVA blanked the Tribe, 43-0. The Cavaliers totaled 545 yards of offense (339 pass, 206 rush) while holding William & Mary to 183 yards total.

Can the Hoos maintain the high level of play against an FBS opponent? We’ll find out on Saturday, September 11, when they kickoff against Illinois.

Three Illinois Offense Positions/Players

QUARTERBACKS

Brandon Peters started 16 games for the Illini in 2019 and 2020 and started the Nebraska game before leaving due to an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Bielema says he will practice this week, but as of Monday Peters had not been cleared for contact. If the 6’5” Peters cannot go on Saturday, 6’5” Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski is in line to get the start.

Sitkowski played very well taking over for Peters against the Huskers, completing 12-of-15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. He did not play as well against UTSA, completing only 22-of-42 throws, but finished with 266 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing six times for 38 yards. A good start with a new program – Sitkowski just transferred in this summer – from a player with significant Power 5 experience.

RUNNING BACKS

The Illinois offensive line was consistent from week one to week two in one area: Run blocking. In week one the unit scored a 79.6 in run blocking per Pro Football Focus. The grade was 76.2 in week two. The rushing stats aren’t eye-popping (3.8 yards per carry, 158.5 yards per game), but the Illini have an experienced offensive line led longtime starters at center and the two tackle spots. Bielema has a handful of solid running backs to choose from.

Mike Epstein (#26) leads Illinois in carries (25) and rushing yards (107). He reeled off a 45-yard scamper in the opener against Nebraska. Epstein doesn’t have blazing speed, but he runs hard and is a physical player. Reggie Love III (#23) has rushed 23 times for 84, and Jakari Norwood (#3) has seven carries for 42 yards. Chase Brown (#2), who had two 100-yard games in 2020, is expected back after missing the UTSA game due to injury, True freshman Josh McCray (#0) rushed five times for 20 yards against UTSA, and Bielema credited him with providing a spark to the offense.

ILLINOIS’ “FBP”

Keytaon Thompson is to Virginia what Isaiah Williams is to Illinois. Williams, a 5’10”, 180-pound sophomore, started four of five games at quarterback for the Illini in 2020. He switched to wide receiver this offseason and has 14 receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown through two games in 2021. Williams also has two carries for eight yards.

Virginia fans can expect to see Illinois try and get the ball into #1’s hands as much as possible on Saturday. With his quarterback experience, don’t be surprised to see some trickeration from him as well.

Another “FBP” to watch for Illinois is redshirt freshman receiver Deuce Spann. The 6’4″ Spann, a dual-threat QB in high school, has only two catches this season, but both have resulted in big plays – a 45-yard reception vs. Nebraska and a 31-yard catch vs. UTSA that went for a touchdown.

Three Illinois Defensive/Special Teams Players To Watch

DL KEITH RANDOLPH JR.

6’5”, 300-pound defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. recorded a sack in each of Illinois’ first two games and added a forced fumble. He left the UTSA game with an injury, though, and on Monday Bielema was unsure of the standout youngster’s health for this Saturday. His absence would be missed in terms of pass rushing and for the defense in general.

DB DEVON WITHERSPOON

Witherspoon, a sophomore, has been a major playmaker for Illinois this season, totaling 13 tackles (11 solo) with two tackles for loss and six pass breakups. The Illinois pass defense has struggled with big plays, but Witherspoon may be one Armstrong needs to be careful with.

TOP KICKING DUO

Placekicker James McCourt and punter Blake Hayes are two of the best kickers in the nation. McCourt has made 3-of-4 field goals this season, including 2-of-3 from beyond 50 yards. Hayes has 11 punts, is averaging 47 yards per punt, and has pinned the opponent inside the 20 on seven of those kicks.

Three Things For UVA To Focus On

START FAST

Virginia led William & Mary 3-0 after the first quarter, scoring on one of its first four possessions. On three of the four possessions, UVA failed to secure a first down. Armstrong and company starting fast against Illinois will be important in my opinion, preventing the Illini from establishing a potentially troublesome rushing attack and putting the pressure on Sitkowski and the passing game, which is what happened to Illinois last week.

Big plays in the passing game should be available to Brennan Armstrong, Dontayvion Wicks and company. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

BIG PLAYS

Nebraska had eight plays of 15 yards or more against Illinois, including five plays of over 25 yards. UTSA had 10 plays of 15 yards or more in their win in Champagne. Illinois is susceptible to big plays, especially in the passing game (14 of 18 big plays in the previous two games were passing), so UVA should have big-play opportunities and will have to take advantage.

STUFF THE RUN EARLY

In line with the “start fast” line of thinking, the UVA defense needs to stuff Illinois’ rushing attack early and make Sitkowski and company throw the football. UVA had four defenders who graded out in the 70s in run defense against William & Mary, but only two of those defenders (Hunter Stewart and Anthony Johnson) had more than 10 snaps. The Hoos will have to improve against an Illinois team that will look to establish a consistent run game and has multiple backs to choose from.

PICKS

SABRE EDITOR KRIS WRIGHT

Virginia started its 2021 season on a high note with a 43-0 shutout of William & Mary. It took a little while for the offense to settle in, but mostly this was a low-penalty, three-phase, comfortable win. The biggest concern for most fans was that the two lines were not dominant in the trenches against the FCS level competition, but there was plenty to like from the victory otherwise.

The question now is how that translates against the rest of the schedule. The Wahoos have the Big Ten’s Illinois plus independents Notre Dame and BYU left out of conference with the full ACC slate representing the remainder of the competition. First up: the Illini, who are in town this Saturday for a 11 a.m. brunch kickoff. Considering the success at Scott Stadium in recent seasons, the Cavaliers should be clear favorites and should be able to take care of business.

So will they? The Hoos shouldn’t have too much trouble moving the ball again this week as Illinois has shown vulnerability to diverse passing attacks and option-run teams. UVA, of course, has both. That part really boils down to Brennan Armstrong and turnovers. When he takes care of the ball, he generally gets his team to the winner’s circle in 10 career starts. The Illini have some ability to get going on offense too, though, so Virginia’s defense will get its first real test of the season in this one. The visitors have several components that sometimes give Bronco Mendenhall era defenses trouble: a playmaking tight end in the passing game, deep ball receiving threats, and big personnel packages that can pound the perimeter with stretch runs and the like. The breakdowns of last season still worry me until I see the recalibrated defense line up and show it can handle the challenge. UVA also needs to hold its own on special teams where Illinois is really good.

Ultimately, I think UVA is comfortably the better team and really tough to beat at home. The Hoos have some big play breakdowns on defense, but still stretch it out in the second half and win big. VIRGINIA 37, ILLINOIS 20. Season to date: 1-0.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Illinois could present some problems to UVA, particularly if they are able to stay balanced and establish a rushing attack. I don’t think the visitors have enough defensively, though, to keep pace. I could see this game being closer than UVA fans may want, but I think the Hoos ultimately pull away for a win. VIRGINIA 42, ILLINOIS 23. Season to date: 1-0.

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